Thursday, May 05, 2005

Jesus denial and the Holocaust (addendum)

Ryan's comment to my original post on the Holocaust is a good clarification of his position. See here for more of my responses to his comment with regard to the Holocaust, but I can agree with his central point. Given the long responses and texts that I sent him in our debates, particularly that one, it sounds plausible that he asked me for a concise summary rather than demanding a "single proof", and that I interpreted the request as mere recalcitrance. The debate itself was mostly by e-mail, and I've kept copies; but this exchange was in person, and I have no problem with the possibility that I misinterpreted, or misremembered, something in a conversation. My apologies, indeed, if I got it wrong.

It is nonetheless a customary tactic of Jesus-deniers to say that there is no single piece of evidence, outside of texts, that proves Jesus' existence. One thing mentioned repeatedly is that we have coins with images of Tiberius Caesar, and engravings showing him with his family, but nothing of the sort for Jesus. Aside from the fact that Jesus was a commoner, this is the sort of thinking which implies that a single piece of evidence, or its absence, might settle the case. But as Shermer argues, no single piece settles the matter; I might add that in complex questions with many pieces of evidence to consider, one piece will not even push the question very far in one direction or another. For instance, Roman coins also carried the image of the god Mithra; and engravings depict gods with their families all the time. The larger question, quite simply, awaits further tests and arguments. The fixation on physical evidence borders almost on a fetish, in our times.

Christians also can fixate on it. Late in my debate with Ryan, it was announced that a bone-box, or ossuary, had been found with an engraving that mentioned Jesus and his brother James. The Christian world was generally happy to have a physical link to the historical Jesus, with the possible exception of Catholics who held by faith that Jesus did not have siblings. I should note that John Meier, the Catholic priest who is still in the midst of composing A Marginal Jew (where he wrote that Jesus did have siblings), cautioned early on that evidence for and against the genuineness of the ossuary should be weighed deliberately before judgments were made. I was in the midst of this debate with Ryan and naturally seized upon it as evidence. I had not yet read Shermer's book, or else I might have been more careful. I related to Ryan that all the early judgments on the ossuary inscription were positive, which was nearly true, at the time. His response was that new finds always undergo back-and-forth scrutiny, and that is exactly what has happened with the ossuary, the judgment of forgery now having the upper hand in the debate, and many questions still being asked about the inscription and the inquiries.

Note that if the inscription were a forgery from later centuries, this says nothing in favor of the theory that Jesus did not exist. Those scholars today who have examined the inscription and judged it a forgery from a few hundred years after Christ do not argue or imply that someone forged the inscription in order to get scientific proof that Jesus existed. There was no marketplace in the ancient world for "scientific proof"; the common motive was to sell the object, so great has been the marketplace, in all times and places, for religious relics. Such relics, like the crown of thorns or the Holy Grail, speak about famous people, but have never played a serious role in historical or archaeological inquiries into the people themselves.

In sum: no single thing should ever be presented, still less examined, with the weight of entire subjects unwisely placed on it. Those who wish to deny well-accepted history, being so often unskilled in weighing complex evidence or simply unwilling to do so, tend to think that a few arguments, or just one, will call a lot of things into question -- when in fact the only thing that does so is hard, prolonged, informed work.


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